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Busting the myths that surround lean principles

Stephen Parry

Stephen Parry busts the myths of lean principles, in particular that lean is about providing tools

Many organisations, when they go lean, have high expectations that are not realised because their implementation of it is only down at the transactional level. The temptation is to give people a toolkit and a few methods to play with and let them get on with it. That is a very impoverished approach to lean and it actually sets up businesses to fail. 

The idea, that for an ailing organisation there is some kind of Lean toolkit or bag of medical tricks, is complete anathema to the process.

We know that a doctor’s true skill and effectiveness is not in their medical bag, it is, rather, in their accumulated knowledge and skill in shedding light on problems that they may never have encountered before. So it is with lean. If we try to implement lean merely by copying what is in the bag, we will actually do more harm than good.

In implementing lean, critical thinking skills and the ability to understand and appreciate complexity are key. Fundamentally, this comes down to the way we re-educate our staff to actually become mini consultants to their own businesses. This in turn, requires radical thinking about the nature of work. None of this can be done with any kind of standard-issue toolbox.


Trust me, I’m a doctor

Customers today demand individualisation or personalisation. They need to be treated as one in a million, not one of a million. Only a truly lean organisation can respond effectively to this demand.

Treating customers as if they are one of a million means changing employees’ job roles, systems, behaviours and perspectives. But how? Just as patients need to be able to trust that the doctor has their interests at heart, so employees need to be able to feel that they have the trust of the organisation. This is nigh on impossible to achieve with traditional ‘command and control’ processes. Organisations must develop a trust strategy. Without it, they will never be able to transform the climate at work. In climates where there is little or no trust, everything becomes frozen and people decline additional responsibility, preferring to play it safe for fear of making mistakes. Then when mistakes do happen, they are always covered up.

People wait to be given orders, and for want of a spoonful of trust, everybody has someone else to blame when things go wrong. Thus, it is clear that we must move to a new kind of management structure – one which grows trust at an individual level.

We must create trust between senior managers and middle managers, between managers and supervisors, between supervisors and staff, so that problems can be routinely raised and openly discussed in a blame-free environment, rather than be buried underground because it’s just not safe to surface them.


The soft stuff is the hard stuff - and the only stuff

The first thing I do when I start with an organisation is to establish trust. There is usually a level of mistrust from the past that must be overcome. People often say: ‘Yes, this sounds great, we want to do this, but will the managers change?’ Then the managers say: ‘Yes, I’d like to do this, but our leaders are only focused on the bottom line - they don’t want all this ‘touchy-feely’ stuff’. My answer is always: ‘the soft, or touchy-feely stuff is the hard stuff. In fact it is the only stuff. That is what you need your trust strategy for’.

Building trust is scary, but gets easier as people actually start opening up. When team leaders start to see everything that is going on, then we know we are on the path to change.

All this is a bit like turning the lights on at a really great party. The music stops, and then, suddenly, everyone can see the mess. Sometimes a voice shouts from the corner: ‘Hey, turn off those lights!’, but it us up to senior management to keep those lights on! Everybody must see the mess before they can hope to get real value.

Only then, when everyone can see the whole picture, can they start to work together to identify problems and customise the tools specific to their own specific needs that will help bring true transformation.


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Stephen Parry is respected around the world as a leading authority in Lean organizational design, business transformation and Lean leadership. He is co- author of the seminal work in this field: 'Sense and Respond: The Journey to Customer Purpose'. Clients of his company, Lloyd Parry Consulting, include global IT firms, outsourcing companies, local government, police authorities and financial service organizations.


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